Monday, April 23, 2012

The self-mythologizing of Nikki Haley

Let's imagine, for a moment, a fashion magazine photo spread featuring the bare legs of former Governor David Beasley, the upswept coiffure of former Governor Carroll Campbell, the smoky come-hither glance of former Governor Mark Sanford.

Across the partisan divide, let's imagine former Governor Jim Hodges squinting icily at a sunset from the bow of a yacht, or former Governor Dick Riley dominating a silk Victorian settee in a fine, tailored smoking jacket and slippers.

Hard to imagine, you say?

Laughable, even?

Perhaps so, as none of these governors offered themselves up as cheesecake to be given the gauzy-filter treatment by a glossy magazine. They were, presumably, about the business of governing South Carolina, not burnishing the imagery of their own mythologies as vaguely-sexualized minor gods.

Governors are photographed, no doubt. All politicians are, and few are immune to the charms of creating one's own legacy. Abraham Lincoln, president during the bloom of photography, made time regularly to be photographed in various locations -- even on the battlefield, flanked by his posing generals.

Having said that, I don't think I ever saw a photo of Lincoln in stilettos and a skirt -- the hem riding just above the knee -- after some obvious time in the hair-stylist's chair, benefitting from a good amount of volumizer and very likely a salon-grade blow dryer.

But I have seen precisely such a photo of our Governor's Mansion's present occupant, Nikki Haley.

If it ever could have been said that Haley never traded on her gender to win the attention of voters, that illusion is good and dead now.

And she needn't reject the critique as rank sexism from those men who have raised the issue. I doubt anyone would say that such serious stateswomen and leaders as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Condoleeza Rice, former Irish President Mary Robinson, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano or former Attorney General Janet Reno -- just to name a few -- ever stooped to smile for a fashion mag in tight white pencil jeans beneath an oversized, candy-stripe oxford smock, stretched open to the third button to accentuate their necklines.

On a pier.

At something approximating the wan white light presaging dawn.

South Carolina may as well have elected no governor in 2010, but elected instead South Carolina's next top model governor -- not the real thing, only the runway version.

The narcissism is nothing new; Haley announced only weeks after her inauguration that she'd signed a book deal, and she's hawking the florid final product in only her fourteenth full month in office. Like another politician with a thin record of public service who rode an anti-establishment wave into a governor's office and seized the opportunity to promote herself as the savior of a "movement," Haley is her own biggest fan.

What makes this move in Vogue different is the brazenness. Those in Columbia's orbit and the political world at large have only had a gut-sense of her self-love before now; with this edition's release, Haley proves herself determined to top herself, and top herself again, then set and surmount her own new standards of shameless self-promotion.

Mind you, this is no promotion of her state, as her mouthpieces might try to suggest. Selling South Carolina is easy, and it requires no inclusion of Haley's image in soft light. This is precisely what the photographs reveal -- the most recent in a long line of brazen pleas for attention, in the same vein as graceless Rielle Hunter's GQ spread, pregnant Demi Moore's famous Vanity Fair cover, Brooke Shields's seductive Calvin Klein jean ad, and Jane Russell's racy promo shots for "The Outlaw."

The trend goes further back than our fashion magazines and advertiser's cameras. Check Manet's "The Picnic" of 1862, Vermeer's "Girl with a pearl earring" of 1667 or Titian's "Venus of Urbino" of 1538 and you'll see a woman captured in a seductive stare at the viewer, completely aware of what she's doing and the attention she's collecting from you. In them, Haley will find her self-promoting predecessors.

America, at this moment, has a collection of distinguished women in chief executive offices. Arizona has Jan Brewer; North Carolina has Bev Perdue; New Mexico has Susana Martinez; Washington has Christine Gregoire; and Oklahoma has Mary Fallin.

In each of these cases, these governors are, first and foremost, governors.

Our own Haley is paid to serve as our chief executive, but that's clearly only her day job.

Her primary focus is, of course, herself.

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